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Let Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto take you on a tour of the dark

Side or Ranch: Jay Heater

East County's Katie McCoy plays with her guide dog, Bristol.
East County's Katie McCoy plays with her guide dog, Bristol.
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It was the Atticus Finch quote in "To Kill A Mockingbird," that went "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."

Perhaps it was no "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse," or "Life is like a box of chocolates," in terms of the most famous, and most remembered, movie quotes, but it was one that stuck with me.

As reporters, we write many profiles on the people in our neighborhood, and they all are very different. It's important to remember that if you haven't been there, been through it when you are writing stories that define them, it's awful hard to think you can understand what they went through. Usually, it takes lots of questions so you can portray the story accurately.

Jay Heater: Side of Ranch
Jay Heater: Side of Ranch

When I met Lakewood Ranch's Rachel Weeks the first time, I remember going back to my favorite movie quote. I certainly couldn't grasp how she could navigate this world being legally blind and I had no way to walk around in her skin.

Weeks was so adept at handling her challenges, she almost presents the image that it's easy. She's a single mom, a full-time worker and an athlete. I interviewed her for a couple hours and never once did I feel I was talking to someone who was visually challenged.

In reality, that's far from the truth. Whether it's running a marathon, or getting the kids to school or being a great employee, Weeks has to work harder than someone who can see.

Southeastern Guide Dogs understands Weeks' plight and knows how hard she works. In August, Southeastern Guide Dogs hired her to be its alumni care support liaison. She is one of four visually impaired employees at the nonprofit.

While doing the story about Weeks' new job, I learned about a program at Southeastern Guide Dogs' Palmetto campus called the Beyond the Dark Cafe. It is a presentation that would have earned Atticus Finch's approval. Southeastern Guide Dogs' tag for the presentation is "Experience darkness in a whole new light."

It's 60 minutes that gives you the chance to walk around in someone else's skin. Sure, it's a testimonial for Southeastern Guide Dogs and what having a guide dog or a service dog can mean to someone who is blind or to a veteran suffering from PTSD. But it gives you a look at what is behind the effort.

Those who attend, wearing blindfolds, can experience what it is like to be blind and navigating a busy street. There also is a section where you hear the sounds of a battlefield and what a soldier must endure.

Video and audio has been created to give the event somewhat of a Disney feel, but the true power is delivered by the stories of those who deal with problems the rest of us can't fathom.

East County's Katie McCoy, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind, talked about walking through the bleachers during a high school sporting event and having a school administrator kick her out of the game and accuse her of banging into people on purpose. The administrator was forced to apologize the next day.

That scene played out in different forms in almost every aspect of her life. Like Weeks, she was so good at handling her blindness, that most people didn't notice she was blind.

Four years ago, McCoy brought home her guide dog, Bristol, from Southeastern Guide Dogs. It wasn't long before she was at a market where a man behind a counter was handing out samples. Bristol wore a sign that said she was a guide dog at work and the salesman saw the sign. He came around the counter and put a sample in McCoy's hand. She realized then that being identified as blind has its advantages.

McCoy had several other stories, some heartbreaking, some inspiring.

"Bristol has been huge for me," she said. "We are the same person. She is sassy, like me. Bristol has my back, and she has saved me from being hit by three cars that I know of. She changed my life emotionally."

McCoy said she was afraid to leave home before Bristol, but now is confident.

"Now I can see the beauty of the rest of the world," she said. 

Certified trainer Marisa Blanco gave the audience a demonstration, on a set built by the nonprofit, of guide dog Astro negotiating several hazards on a street.

Army veteran Sean Brown also addressed the crowd, talked about PTSD he has suffered since serving in three tours of Iraq. He talked of his rage, confusion and frustration when he found himself surrounded by the crowd at events that should have been uplifting.

He would leave "humiliated, disgusted, terrified."

His service dog, Pella, changed all that. He said Pella is "the peace to my rage."

If you would like to check out Beyond the Dark, which runs approximately four times a month, tickets cost $15. The schedule can be found at




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